Over 20 years ago, Jerry Seinfeld joked about people who rely on the car phone, pager, call waiting, and call forwarding. When they arrive in the office, the first thing they ask is, “Any messages for me?” Come on, said Seinfeld – you have to give people a chance to miss you.
In the years since voice mail was on the cutting edge, the mobile phone and its companion services have mutated to deliver a culture of connection, and the eager message-seekers of the old joke have responded in kind, forging a symbiosis of ever-stimulating connection with their companion devices.
Until recently, Michael Harris worked as a harried journalist for a magazine based in Vancouver. His days, as he tells it in The End of Absence, started with a check of his email and text messages, built to an ever-pinging flood of instant messages from friends and coworkers, and crested not just with screens but with full screens, multiple web pages kept open side-to-side with PDFs, status updates, and videos. For all that this electronic bonanza made him feel busy, he couldn’t shake the feeling he was just “pushing electronic nothings around while staring at a glowing rectangle.”
One particular afternoon, in the midst of this glowing maelstrom, Harris received a text message from a friend impatient to hear from him – “are you alive or what?” In his electronic daze, Harris took the question literally, and realized his impoverished state of “continuous partial attention” was not, actually, living.
So Harris left his job, and tried to track down, by asking brain researchers, web developers, tech philosophers, and himself, what was lost when he – and the rest of us – traded solitude, ignorance, and boredom for the surveillance, knowingness, and amusement that our screens promise to deliver with uncoined constancy.
Harris offers a questing look at parts of our lives he thinks are served poorly by constant connection. He points out how such behemoths of the Internet as Google and Wikipedia serve up systematically biased information in the guise of impartial librarians of the world’s data. But rather than hone a techno-Marxian critique of the ways that Big Data takes advantage of us, Harris wishes to gently wake us from the “swarm of noise” so that we may recall the benefits of silence.
In this emphasis Harris shares intention with Thoreau: “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and begin to realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” And like a retreat to Walden Pond, Harris tries to extricate himself from the electronic web that sticks to every minute of his day. He contorts himself away from the inbox to read "War and Peace," and diarizes a month of digital abstinence.
Harris’s honesty in these accounts of absenting earns sympathy the same way as does the young Russian soldier in Tolstoy’s epic who realizes the onrushing French soldiers mean to kill him: “Me, whom everybody loves so?” Just as the great sweep of history, the analysis of generals, campaigns, cultures, and monarchies can crystallize in the plaintive fear of a novel’s doomed character, so do Harris’s thoughtful, researched musings on our connected lives clarify when he shows just how hard it is to put down the phone and walk away.
While his friends tell him “this whole better-than-the-Internet thing is getting seriously tired,” Harris finds himself, as if conditioned by all his years of endlessly checking news feeds until something new appears, expecting that his break from technology should pay off with something good, too. “I thought it was time for my revelation, that I deserved by now some newfound silence or solitude that would close this book on a happy, even inspirational lob. I was ready for my personal transformation.”
Harris is too honest to say that any transformation he has made has been more than a modest one, but this modesty implies a respect for the severity of the task he set before us. To pull away from our hyperconnected lives is painful; it is hard, and it is a muddle. Harris walks us through his particular muddle with wit, wry honesty, and compassion for the “strange suffering” of all who find themselves checking email at the dinner table, suspecting that the world at their peripheral vision is where they should really be paying attention.